On April 24, 2013, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro ordered the arrest of American filmmaker Tim Tracy in Caracas on terrorism and spying charges. Tracy was sent to one of the most violent prisons on earth. Was he a spy? Would he get out alive?
JUNE 4, 2013
Even if he somehow figured out a way to tune out the death threats that had been coming at him from an entire cell block of hardened killers—“You’re going to die tonight, you gringo faggot cocksucker!”—there was still no chance of sleep.
His feet were so ravaged by mosquito bites they’d begun to bleed. There were crevices in the wall on either end of his bed; the moment he lay down, endless columns of roaches came streaming out of the crumbling concrete for a well-coordinated assault on his orifices. Maybe they’d be less aggressive if he wasn’t so ripe. There was a showerhead in his cell, but its handle was conspicuously absent, and he hadn’t bathed in days. He was still wearing the humiliating outfit they’d forced him to put on just before they paraded him in front of El Rodeo’s entire general population upon his arrival: a ratty white T-shirt and a pair of bright yellow cutoff sweats so undersized they might as well have been daisy dukes. His requests for a broom and access to a shower had been denied. More troubling was the fact that his meds for anxiety and insomnia, both of which were spiking, had just run out, and his repeated requests to refill them had been met with either laughter or indifference.
The fact that Tim Tracy had held up this long—42 days, to be exact—meant nothing to him now. Being the American whose arrest was personally ordered by the president of Venezuela on live national television—that Tim could handle. He’d found a lot of it amusing at the beginning, especially the armed convoys that accompanied him to and from courthouse visits. Who did they think he was, Jack Bauer?
Then the rules changed. Six days earlier, he had been transferred from his cell at the national intelligence headquarters in Caracas to El Rodeo, the most infamous prison in a country whose prison system was perhaps the world’s worst. He was no longer being used as a political pawn by a desperate government on the verge of collapse.
Now Tim Tracy had become a target.
At this particular moment, no one—not even President Nicolás Maduro—could guarantee his safety. Although the wing he was staying in, El Rodeo Dos, was supposed to be secure, the buildings on either side, Uno and Tres, were run by gang leaders. There were no prison guards, just armed thugs with AK-47s and rocket launchers. All it would take was one bribe, or one riot like the one that had happened here two years ago, and he’d be dead.
Then, out of nowhere, a pair of female nurses appeared, both young, both gorgeous, standing in front of his cell door and telling him to come with them. He couldn’t be entirely sure they were real. Was he hallucinating? A guard unlocked his door, and the two women were still there. Tracy was standing up and joining them. They were leading him down a hallway, away from the squalor of his cell. Were they taking him to a death chamber? Was he being released? He had no way of knowing. He decided to roll with it and not ask any questions.
It wouldn’t be the first time he had followed a Venezuelan girl into unfamiliar waters. If it weren’t for Alejandra, none of this would ever have happened.
CHRISTMAS WEEK, 2011
The evening began at the Chateau Marmont, the only place in Los Angeles with anything resembling old-school Hollywood glamour. I’d been in town for yet another round of casting on the independent film I’d been trying to make for way longer than I was willing to admit, and a girl had invited me to join her and some friends for dinner in the garden.
Sitting across from me was Tim Tracy, a stocky spark plug of a guy with a wildness to his eyes. He was around my age and had been hustling here for almost a decade, but he had a childlike enthusiasm uncommon to veterans of the Hollywood jungle. There was no affectation or cool-guy posturing, no faux-humble name-drops to boost his cred. He said he was a filmmaker but without the usual whose-dick-is-bigger subtext that characterizes most first-time encounters at a place like this.
There was something a little off about Tim. I got the feeling that, like me, he was unsatisfied—with his career, with everything—and he was wired in a way that necessitated some kind of outlet for all that unexpressed energy, some substitute for the insanity of making a movie. After interviewing dozens of directors over the years, I had learned that many people were drawn to movies because making them was the only thing that could calm them down. But until that happened, the challenge was figuring out where to burn off all that stockpiled energy before it got radioactive.
I discovered Tim’s preferred method a couple of hours later, when our group moved the party from the Chateau to his bungalow in Laurel Canyon. I found myself in the living room, watching as Tim scurried about the space like a man possessed—turning on stereo, strobe light and smoke machine, handing out random props (DEA vest, top hat, plastic swords). An all-night dance party commenced.
At some point Tim made a running, jumping grab for the metal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. He swung around the room before the cord snapped, sending both him and the chandelier plummeting before stopping, abruptly, a foot from the floor. Tim’s friends all laughed. They seemed to enjoy his antics as an expression of some youthful desire to connect to the world.
Was Tim living in a place far above his pay grade as a freelance TV documentary producer with a trust fund to fall back on? Absolutely. Was his Animal House shtick a little ridiculous for a guy his age? Sure. To the casual observer who was quick to judge, Tim was an easy guy to write off. But as I would soon learn, underestimating Tim’s capabilities, or his courage, would be unwise.
We became Facebook friends, and a few months later I was back in New York, thinking I would never see Tim Tracy again.
APRIL 26, 2013
The e-mail arrived as I was walking across Central Park. It was from Alanna Sampietro, an actress friend from L.A. who ran in Tim’s circle, with the subject heading: “Sign please! My filmmaker friend arrested in Venezuela.” I opened the e-mail, a form letter generated through the website Change.org. “My friend Tim Tracy has been arrested in Venezuela,” it began.
Tim Tracy from Laurel Canyon? I clicked through to discover that Tim had been arrested two days earlier at the Caracas airport on his way out of the country. When I read that Tim was in the custody of SEBIN, Venezuela’s national intelligence service, on terrorism charges, I stopped in my tracks.
I began scouring the net on my phone. Tim hadn’t been formally charged yet. Still, Venezuela’s newly elected president, Nicolás Maduro (who had recently taken office after Hugo Chávez’s death from cancer), and his interior minister, Miguel Rodríguez Torres, had held news conferences that were carried live by every major TV network in Venezuela. The interior minister announced that the country’s new presidential regime had taken down a major threat to national security: the April Connection, a secret plot whose objective was to destabilize the country through acts of violence, with the ultimate goal of starting a civil war. And though the members of this terrorist cell were right-wing ultra-capitalists who had been recruited from the ranks of Venezuela’s antigovernment opposition, the man in charge was an American: CIA field agent Timothy Hallet Tracy, an ingenious master of deception who oversaw everything from laundering cash to masterminding acts of terror, all while maintaining a cover identity as a filmmaker at work on a documentary. The reports also mentioned that he’d been arrested twice before, in October and February, for suspicious activities.
“He is trained and he knows how to infiltrate and how to handle sources and security information,” said Rodríguez Torres. “Those big powers who do this type of spying, they often use the facade of a filmmaker, documentary-maker, photographer or journalist. Because with that facade they can go anywhere, penetrate any place.”
President Maduro wasted no time in casting himself as the noble proletarian hero when he addressed the press. “The gringo who financed the violent groups has been captured,” said Maduro. “I gave the order that he be detained immediately and passed over to the attorney general’s office. Nobody can be destabilizing this country, whatever they believe, because they’re on the side of the bourgeoisie.”
The flurry of news reports about Tim included a handful of quotes from his friends and family, all of whom proclaimed his innocence. Aengus James, a producer-director who had worked with Tim, told the Associated Press, “They don’t have CIA in custody. They don’t have a journalist in custody. They have a kid with a camera.”